At Vital Side, we talk a lot about the stress response and trauma, and for good reason. Both can have long-reaching effects on our physical and mental health.
But do you ever catch yourself thinking of the two interchangeably?
It's important to recognize that there's a difference between stress and trauma - understanding this distinction can help us navigate our emotional, physical, and energetic well-being more effectively and help us to take appropriate steps to cope.
Trauma is a catalyst or cause. Stress (and our response to it) is a symptom related or unrelated to trauma.
It might be helpful to think of stress as - stick with me here - a runny nose and to think of trauma as allergies.
Don’t we often get a runny nose with allergies? Sure. Just like trauma can, and often does, cause stress.
But you can also get irritated sinuses and a runny nose from a whole host of other causes; allergies are just one of them. And they can even make your already irritated sinuses worse, causing a sinus infection.
Similarly, stress can arise from various sources and circumstances unrelated to trauma. While trauma usually drags stress around behind it and makes existing stress worse, stress can also be the result of many different everyday challenges. So stress and trauma are not always directly linked.
In this blog post, we’ll describe and give examples of stress and trauma, explore how they can feed off one another, and look at some practical ways to cope with both.
Let’s dive in!
What is Stress?
Stress is something we're all familiar with. It's that feeling of pressure, tension, or strain that arises when we face demanding or overwhelming situations.
Here's a closer look:
- Stress is our body’s response to perceived dangers.
- It’s a normal part of life and can be triggered by various factors such as work, relationships, financial concerns, health issues, and even our environment.
- Stress can be temporary or chronic.
Examples of stressors include:
- Tight deadlines at work
- Conflicts with loved ones
- Financial setbacks
- Exposure to toxins, viruses, and bacteria
- Major life changes
- Or even daily hassles like traffic jams or a busy schedule
Stress triggers a physiological response, leading to elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies. This, in turn, causes all sorts of physical and emotional symptoms, especially when the stress is prolonged. These symptoms can include:
- Muscle tension
- Brain fog
- And many others
What is Trauma?
Many think of trauma as major life-altering events. When we speak about trauma here, we refer to the long-term effect overwhelming experiences have on our well-being and how we process and recall memories.
“Trauma” is a Greek word that originally meant wound. So it’s not an event; it’s what happens to you as the result of an event.
We’ve also learned that trauma comes in different forms, including what we call Big "T" traumas and Little "t" traumas. Little "t" traumas can be seemingly benign experiences, but they can have a lasting impact on our nervous system.
Let's explore this a little more:
- Trauma occurs when we experience an overwhelming event or a series of events that surpass our ability to cope.
- Trauma can be experienced on a spectrum, ranging from significant seismic events to seemingly minor occurrences that still have a lasting impact.
- Big “T” traumas can result from major, earth-shattering events or repeated or prolonged harmful events. These could include:
- A car accident
- The sudden death of a loved one
- A natural disaster
- Physical violence
- A diagnosis of a serious illness and all of the appointments, tests, and treatments that follow - leading to medical care-related anxiety long after the illness has been managed.
- Little "t" traumas are the accumulation of smaller or less pronounced experiences that can still be traumatic. These seemingly benign occurrences can leave a lasting imprint on our nervous system and affect our well-being. Examples of Little "t" traumas include:
- Experiencing continuous pressure to be perfect or meet high expectations.
- Hurtful comments made about your physical appearance.
- Your accomplishments go unnoticed or unacknowledged by parents or caregivers, leading to feelings of unimportance or inadequacy.
- Being punished or yelled at for expressing illness thus creating the belief that sick=bad.
- Birth-related trauma, again leading to anxiety surrounding medical care.
These examples may seem less significant compared to the major life events listed above, but they can still cause distress and have a lasting impact on our nervous system.
Both Big “T” and Little “t” traumas can accumulate in the body. Our bodies remember and digest these experiences, and over time, they can lead to conditioned responses that trigger fight, flight or freeze reactions even in seemingly harmless situations.
Because of this, trauma often leads to chronic health problems, which can lead to more traumatizing events creating a cycle of progressively feeling worse and worse. (We address this in Rewire.)
Here is where stress comes into play once again. Our bodies can respond as though danger is present based solely on those patterns that our traumas have made inside us, triggering our stress response even in safe environments.
Navigating Stress and Trauma: Tips and Strategies
Five key strategies can help us to manage our trauma and reduce the stress it carries.
Let’s take a brief look:
- Engage in activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or practicing mindfulness.
- Prioritize self-care by engaging in hobbies, spending time in nature, getting adequate sleep, and maintaining a balanced lifestyle.
- Seek emotional support from trusted friends, family members, or professionals who can provide a listening ear and guidance.
- If symptoms of stress or trauma are having a significant impact on your daily life, don’t be afraid to seek professional help.
- Consider reaching out to therapists, counselors, or trauma-informed practitioners who can provide appropriate guidance and therapies tailored to your specific needs.
- Guided brain retraining is an excellent way to heal the stress cycle, transforming it into wisdom and awareness rather than trying to erase it.
- Cultivate resilience by fostering a positive mindset, developing healthy coping mechanisms, and practicing self-compassion.
- Engage in activities that promote personal growth and self-discovery. Try journaling, creative expression, singing, dancing, or participating in support groups.
- Focus on building a strong support network, made up of understanding and compassionate people who can offer encouragement and validation.
- Learn to set boundaries in your personal and professional life to protect your well-being.
- Allow time for relaxation, rest, and activities that bring you joy and rejuvenation.
- Develop healthy habits like regular exercise or a movement practice.
Remember that trauma and stress, while related, are not interchangeable.
Stress is a common experience - a mechanism that our body uses to protect us - trauma goes deeper and can have a profound impact on our lives.
In many cases, stress is a symptom and trauma a cause.
And trauma is not the story of something that happened back then; it's the current imprint of that pain and fear living inside you right now.
By recognizing and addressing both Big "T" and Little "t" traumas, we can begin to understand their influence on our well-being and work towards healing and resilience.
Trauma, regardless of its size, deserves compassion and attention in order to promote healing and personal growth.
Coping With Daily Stress Before It Leads to Imprinted Trauma and Health Problems
A life transition, perhaps a break-up, new relationship, new job, a stressful situation, leaving a job, or entering parenthood, is an excellent time to take a step back and notice - which of your learned patterns bring unwarranted stress? These experiences, with their varied mixes of stress and excitement, can really make us pause and think.
If you are in just such a transition and would like to take the opportunity to break the stress cycle and instead make feeling good a habit - we created our Reboot program just for you! It is a structured process designed to teach you the science-based tools you need to correct trauma patterns and put stress in its place.
Get on the waitlist for this program that launches June 30th to learn simple tools today.